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After the Election, Comes the Dawn of Reality for Pete Wilson : California: The new governor must pick his way through a political minefield, but he can look to the election results for guidance.

November 18, 1990|Sherry Bebitch Jeffe | Sherry Bebitch Jeffe is a senior associate of the Center for Politics and Policy at the Claremont Graduate School

Memo to Pete Wilson: Talk about your nightmares. You finally won the office you've coveted for so long. But you will enter it with no mandate to govern--just a clear message from those Californians who bothered to vote. That is: We don't want new taxes, and we're not keen on spending. And it's clear that you will face a massive state budget deficit.

And who will help you out? Certainly not a Legislature whose job termination you heartily endorsed. Letting bygones be bygones isn't one of Sacramento's strengths.

How can you make your way through this political minefield? There are lessons to be learned from the recent election. Look at your own race, for example. It proved two basic political axioms.

Axiom No. 1: In politics, timing is everything. In the closing weeks of the campaign, the political environment and public mood shifted toward issues that favored you--war and the economy. By disengaging yourself from the President on the budget fracas, you avoided paying the price for an unpopular compromise.

The mood may have begun to shift again just days before the election. The voters' increasing restlessness for change and the issue of fairness could conceivably have helped some women candidates, but there wasn't enough time or intensity for that to be decisive here.

It may not work that way again. You will be the clearly identifiable incumbent. It will be difficult to duck the next budget; it will be yours. A George Bush waffle could do for you what it's done for the President--make it impossible to lead.

Axiom No. 2: In a race as close as this year's gubernatorial contest, anything can make a difference. That's when traditional factors tend to kick in.

Party loyalty, turnout, money, organization, experience, get-out-the-vote efforts, absentee-ballot operation--all tended to favor you. That should bode well for Republicans in the 1992 elections when two U.S. Senate seats will be up for grabs.

But have you noticed something? While California Democrats seem to be coming out of the woodwork to run for the Senate, speculation on both your appointed replacement and the open-seat GOP candidate has primarily centered around a few less-than-household names.

That is a damning commentary on the depth of the Republican bench and on the cavalier attitude toward party development taken by your predecessor in the governor's office. If you're going to exert party leadership, one of the first realities to face is that the best organization in the world needs viable candidates to win.

This year the Democrats had a viable candidate; they lost the 1990 election the same way they lost 1982--taking their core constituencies for granted, slighting organization and get-out-the-vote efforts and failing to tame the absentee-ballot monster.

This is the second electoral victory you owe to former Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown. First you beat him for the Senate, and now he's the Democratic Party chair who couldn't mobilize his party faithful.

Timing was important here, too. With the Democratic apparatus in disarray, the party's legislative leadership--the mainstay of Democratic electoral politics in this state--was occupied elsewhere.

Coming off a multimillion-dollar campaign against two reapportionment initiatives on the June ballot, their time, money and energy were being spent trying to beat Proposition 140. And their party and its gubernatorial nominee suffered because of that preoccupation.

On the other hand, it's unclear whether your own embrace of term limitations helped elect you, but it doesn't appear to have hurt. Looking at Orange County returns, pollster Mark Baldassare sees your endorsement as helping to "solidify the conservative wing of the Republican Party." You needed that.

But now what will you find it necessary to do to continue to placate the right? Give them a Senate seat? Backtrack on choice? How will that affect your ability to govern?

Here's another question: Now that Proposition 140 has passed, and you have earned the enmity of nearly every sitting legislator, where do we go from here?

Be advised that the message voters sent in rejecting one term-limitation initiative, Proposition 131, and only narrowly approving the other, Proposition 140, should not be construed as an angry cry of "throw the bums out." The fate of the two propositions tended to fit the pattern of victory and defeat for all initiatives on the November ballot.

Said one observer, "If it smelled like money, it went down." Proposition 140 had a simple message, didn't cost big money and didn't raise taxes.

It's clear from the vote on all the propositions--including the historic defeat of major bond issues--that voters were demanding three things: fiscal restraint, initiative restraint and that the Legislature clean up its act.

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